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AcroYoda: Systems Thinking

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

Three months ago, when an acquaintance and I approached an acro jam (an unstructured gathering of AcroYoga practitioners that allows us space to play with new skills and partners), I had no intention of participating. I barely practiced yoga, am a Nebraska-bred 5’7 woman whose primary exercise involves weightlifting with former college and pro athletes, and all of my serious injuries have been results of my own clumsiness. In short, I’m not a small, flexible, or graceful human. That didn’t phase the experienced acro community who welcomed me with full confidence that I could do - and would love - acro if I would trust them to guide me.

The first instructor who insisted he could get me to fly a basic front bird was about my same height and seemed to be a more petite human in spite of his lean muscular build. This was my first lesson in the conditions that enable people to take risk (which I will go into more detail on in my article on leadership development). While outside appearances may cause me to doubt his ability to keep my body from crashing to the ground, I had seen him do much more complex things with others and, if something went wrong, the farthest I would fall was the length of his legs (3 feet). I took a calculated risk and moved from an observer to a participant.

Practicing bird with my new acro partner.

Once in bird, he was able to teach me about the importance of stacking – essentially aligning our bones (our structures), so that very little strength was actually required. This makes acro more accessible to people of all body types and abilities! When stacking was achieved we both felt so relaxed that we could stay there for long periods of time and begin exploring by inviting more movement into our pose. This is what successful systems change feels like! When we think about our different stakeholders, departments, or sectors as bodies with their own structures we apply this same stacking principle to realize systems change. The more aligned our data collection, process rhythms, and communication mechanisms are the less strength it requires to work together towards a common goal. When our bones hold us up, our muscles can be used for creativity and innovation.

When our bones hold us up, our muscles can be used for creativity and innovation.

I was hooked! My first experience was in St Petersburg, FL while visiting my brother, so when I returned to Philadelphia I searched social media to find the local acro community. Thankfully Acro& was starting up regular outdoor classes and paired me with another beginner that was excited to try acro. Since I had first learned while flying with very experienced practitioners, working with another beginner brought a new set of lessons. While I understood stacking and what it should feel like, I was still learning body awareness (another article) and was less certain of how to describe (yep, another article) or achieve it with another person who didn’t yet understand it. What I felt, instead, was both of us pulling each other in different directions as we fought to keep us from tumbling.

When form, balance, or alignment is off, each partner’s instinct is to fight for control of the pose with the intent of making it easier for the other. The impact is that you each end up pulling the other partner further out of alignment. Who hasn’t felt this in coalition work?! Get too many leaders in a room and you might as well stick to somersaults. Convening leaders is one of my favorite things to do though so how do we overcome this instinct?

“Your movements must be gentler and slower – you’re doing them in partnership with another human.”

“Your movements must be gentler and slower – you’re doing them in partnership with another human.” This was essentially what one of the Acro& instructors shared with a first-timer after he drove his knee forward while balanced (I use this word loosely) on my feet above. The jerking motion made it difficult for me to maintain the little balance we had and we fell out of the pose. Systems change work requires partnership and a delicate balancing of multiple relationships. When we move too quickly, before our partners are ready, we can throw off that balance. If we don’t lose the balance completely, our partner or we might overcorrect in an attempt to regain alignment. This could look like changing a policy or protocol based on one misstep that could have better been resolved with an honest conversation. It could mean offering to take over a partner’s responsibility rather than providing feedback. As we fight for control, we must remember that we are not working alone or with inanimate objects. Our movements must* respect the other humans with whom we work and, if done with care, build trust.

The Jedi Box is a great way to change perspectives!

Luckily the person that I was paired with for my first class enjoyed it just as much as I did and we agreed to come back each Tuesday. One of the great things about our partnership is that we are similarly sized and are both willing to fly or base. This versatility allows us to try each role when learning a new skill so that we can feel what is needed from our partner from each perspective. The ability to empathize with another person’s role is valuable for so many reasons and will continue to make appearances in this series. In this instance, it illustrates the importance of stakeholder engagement in systems thinking. Often times, we or our organization have one perspective of the system. It doesn’t always make sense or isn’t always possible to switch roles, but it is important to understand other stakeholders’ perspectives in order to see the full complexity of a system. This is why, when faced with a problem, we do a stakeholder analysis and seek others out to listen to (and when possible, experience) their view.

Who knew acro could teach us so many things about systems change?! Let’s recap…

  • Stacking – essentially aligning our bones (our structures) requires less strength and makes hard things more accessible to people of all abilities. It also frees our muscles up to be innovative.

  • Be mindful when someone is fighting for control – when form, balance, or alignment is off, our instinct is to overcorrect and use our strength to keep from falling. This further pulls our partner out of alignment.

  • Movement must* respect other humans – we must be gentler and slower when working with other humans. Both of our success depends on it because we are an interconnected system.

  • Engage stakeholders - seek others out to listen to (and, when possible, experience) their view so that we can see the full complexity of a system.

There are SO many more lessons to tease out, but starting with how acro maps to systems thinking sets the stage for this series. Stay tuned for more AcroYoda!

*I acknowledge that not all humans share our goals and whose lack of mutual respect can be harmful to you and others. I will go deeper into this in future articles about the acro community culture which includes consent, communication, and spotters. More broadly, I do believe that our communities would benefit if we all thought more often about how our actions impacted others.

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